The Adventures of a Collector

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Terry Seymour

To celebrate the opening on 17 January 2008 of the UNC Wilson Library exhibit, "The ABC of Collecting Everyman's Library: Archives, Books, Collectors", Terry Seymour (photo left) delivered a lecture entitled "The Adventures of a Collector." He expounded upon book collecting in general as well as Everyman's Library in particular, telling anecdotes about notable book collectors and booksellers as well as sharing his personal experience, all told with his characteristic combination of wit and erudition. Though he undoubtedly digressed from his notes as he engaged with his audience, for those of us who could not be there, reading his lecture is the next best thing; and for those who were fortunate enough to be present, here is an opportunity to recollect their enjoyment of that evening.


I feel particularly fortunate in the timing of this talk, being asked to write a speech during the Hollywood writer's strike and deliver a speech during the Presidential primary campaigns. It's good when you are not competing with the professionals.

How many of you are book collectors? How many of you would consider becoming one? How many of you own more than one book? Ah, that's better. You know the definition of a book collection can simply be two or more books that have some connection, perhaps known only to you. One of the purposes of this exhibit and by extension my talk is to stimulate some new interest in book collecting. To support this purpose I will take some time this evening to explain a few terms that are familiar to collectors but perhaps puzzling to non-collectors. I hope that the collectors in attendance will be patient when I do so.

Adventures of a Collector

When a non-collector is viewing my collection or even discussing it in a social situation there are two questions that inevitably arise. Both of these questions are very annoying to the collector. So perhaps if you learn nothing else this evening you can avoid causing some future social damage. These questions are: "Have you read all these books?" and "What's going to happen to all these books when you die?"

By far the most common question is: "Have you read all these books?" There are a number of snappy responses to that question, but the bald truth is that in most cases, a serious collector hasn't the spare time to read a fraction of the books he owns. That is certainly not to say that a collector is unfamiliar with his books. Any collector worth his salt has a detailed knowledge of the background, content, and publication history of his books. Most collectors will have read a respectable amount in their chosen field, depending, of course, upon how broad that field is. The reason this knowledge is crucial to a good collector is that it helps him gauge significance.

Significance is the first term I will discuss. Why is your collection important or how have you shaped your collection to impart more significance to it? Because a book is old or rare does not make it significant or valuable. Novices often overestimate the value of an old book. In truth, there are many old books that have next to no value. One possible reason is that the book was never important to anyone in the first place. Even though few copies might exist and the book might be more than 150 years old it could still be of no value. An advantage of collecting Everyman's Library is that significance is assumed. Even though all of the titles would not now be familiar even to a well-read person, they were certainly significant at one time. Thus, it is clearly unnecessary for me to read any of them just to establish their significance as a worthwhile book.

One collector who could have provided a very satisfying answer to this socially naïve question was Peter Oliver. His collection consisted of every edition of Izaac Walton's Compleat Angler that he could locate. His shelves were lined with hundreds of impressive looking volumes, each one with the same title. "Have you read all these books, Mr. Oliver?" You betcha.

The second most frequently asked question strikes me as very odd, if not rude. Now when has a guest asked you what's going to happen to your good china, or your favorite easy chair or your plasma TV set when you die? Not a very common question, I should think. So once I get past taking umbrage at this very personal inquiry, I do find it to be more interesting than the first one.

Many years ago, I bought a large number of Everymans (or should it be Everymen? I'm never quite sure) from an Australian bookstore. I noted they all contained the bookplate of a "Mr. Burt, Esq." in each volume. (Many of you may know that a bookplate is essentially an ownership certificate, usually pasted inside the front cover of a book. Some bookplates are commissioned works of art while some may be purchased at Staples. They provide a way for an owner to individualize his library. As we shall see they are usually a bad idea.) Upon inquiring, the bookseller told me that Mr. Burt had been a prominent attorney in Australia and had a personal collection of almost 60,000 books, including an almost complete set of Everyman's. At the age of 92 he decided that, rather than burden his heirs with the disposition of such a hoard, he would begin to sell them himself. While he did not live long enough to complete the task, the sales he did make and the blueprint he laid down for negotiating the sales were of considerable relief to his heirs.

Of course the most gratifying solution for this disposal-on-death issue is what has taken place in the remarkable Scheide family. The first Mr. Scheide made a fortune in the oil business back in the 19th Century. He began to use his wealth to acquire rare books. His son continued and enhanced the collection, at one point in the 1920's adding that Holy Grail of all collectors, a Gutenburg Bible. At present there are only about 40 copies of this book known to exist. Only the Scheide copy and one other are still in private hands, the rest all owned by libraries or governments. The third generation Scheide—Bill to his friends—continues the collecting tradition and has amassed the finest collection of Bibles ever known, among many other treasures. A few years ago Bill paid to have the entire library and his full-time paid librarian moved within the Princeton University Rare Book department. He still, however, retains the ownership of his collection. Bill is now in his nineties. His daughter, however, is a serious collector and there is good reason to believe that she will carry on the family tradition.

Unfortunately, the book collecting gene is seldom passed to one's children. Thus, I believe the most responsible act a collector can perform for his heirs is to make arrangements for the disposition of his books well before he departs for that Great Library in the sky.

A final word about Mr. Burt. Several years after first encountering his book plate, while corresponding with John Krygier, another collector, I learned that Mr. Burt was a bit of a thorn in Dent's side. John found, tucked in an Everyman's volume, some correspondence between Burt and Dent from the 1950's. Most of the letters related to some (to me) rather picayune errors relating to Australian subjects in the latest edition of the Everyman's Encyclopedia. Each question was thoroughly and patiently answered by an editor at Dent's. I wonder how Mr. Burt's questions would be treated today.

This past year I had an opportunity to see first hand what happens when a collector simply leaves matters to his heirs. This gentleman owned some 20,000 books, including more than 3,000 Everymans. I was called in to help with the disposition of the Everymans. Even though his family knew of his omnivorous reading habits and penchant for buying books, no one had ever been permitted into the cavernous library he had carved out in the basement of his home. Imagine their surprise when they went down the stairs!

The gentleman in question was actually more of a reader than a collector. Many of his books were heavily annotated and he owned multiple copies of essentially the same book, obviously bought on the spur of the moment because he wanted to read it. Thus this great accumulator and reader shed light on both of our socially inappropriate questions. He had indeed read all of his books, many of them several times, and he had simply left a mess when he died.

A word on annotation: a careful collector will never write anything in a valuable book, not even his name. The exception to this rule is if you are important or famous. Ironically, when someone of significance annotates a book, it can make the book much more valuable. Thus, if I make some ink annotations in a first edition of Johnson's Dictionary it probably would detract $5,000 to $10,000 from the value, depending upon the extent of my handiwork. An average copy of this book probably sells for about $30,000 today. If you had the same book with annotations by a famous friend of Johnson's (say Boswell, or Joshua Reynolds) or better yet, Johnson himself, the book might double in value. Annotations by another famous contemporary of Johnson's might add $10,000 to $20,000. This rule also applies to bookplates. Unless you are famous, don't use bookplates if you care about the value of your books.

Mr. Burt's bookplate didn't very much affect the value of his Everymans one way or another. If he had pasted the bookplate in a rarer book, however, it might well have dropped the value considerably.

A related topic to this discussion is provenance. Any of you who are fans of Antique Roadshow will recognize that term. Provenance refers to the trail of ownership of a book. Often an early owner has written his name or placed other marks of ownership in the book. When the book next changes hands, the new owner might also place a bookplate or make an ownership notation. If this chain of ownership can be documented, and particularly if the owners had some importance, the value of the book is greatly enhanced.

How I Got Started

Of course, I always collected books in some fashion. I still have the Chip Hilton sports series, many in dust jackets, from when I was 10 years old. But since we are concentrating on Everyman's Library this evening, let me tell you how that all started. About 1990 I was casting about for an area of book collecting where I could work at becoming the acknowledged authority.

Before I go any further, let me ask if there are any entomologists in the audience? I always supposed it would be a relatively manageable task to become an acknowledged authority if one could narrow one's field sufficiently. For example I note that new insect species are being discovered with regularity. It strikes me that one could become the expert on a specific bug without too much effort, but that hardly anyone, even within the field, would attribute great importance to your expertise.

If I were to make my mark in book collecting, I could hardly expect to do so in my preferred area, 18th Century literature, Dr. Samuel Johnson and his Circle. Most of the desirable books of that era are already housed in rare book collections around the world. The collectible books that do come to market are very expensive. What's more, the landscape is filled with many world class scholars and collectors who are way out of my league.

While musing in my library in the early 1990's it suddenly hit me that 2006 would be the centennial of Everyman's Library, and that certainly some excitement might accordingly ensue during that year. At that point I think I may have owned four or five volumes in Everyman's Library. It seemed to me, however, that given 15 years I ought to be able to amass a considerable collection without breaking the bank. Furthermore, I would be working with the great books of all time, considerably more important than a seven-legged beetle, I thought. And so it started.

From the very first day I admired the crisp paper and elegant spine gilding on the early volumes. It is this very rich appearance that leads some inexperienced book dealers to overprice an early volume. Lovely they are indeed, but there are still millions of them in circulation so they should not be highly priced in most cases. That brings us to the issue of scarcity. When a book is significant then the fewer examples of the book there are for sale, the greater the value.

Everyman's Library books are generally not scarce. Typically, a printing was for a minimum of 10,000 copies and the more popular books went through many printings. One of the more remarkable items in the exhibit is the Everyman Sales Ledger. I say this is remarkable because it records the complete sales year by year from the inception in 1906 through 1952. Sales figures are never routinely released by a publisher and my impression is that detailed records of sales from this era are exceptional. Thus by studying the Sales Ledger I have been able to document the scarcity of each title. (The initial title of this talk was to be "Over Fifty Million Sold, no wonder I can't find the one I'm looking for.")

The early days of my Everyman's Library collecting were done the hard way, journeying from shop to shop, scanning the shelves of used bookstores. In order to be somewhat efficient I would try to find towns or cities where there was a concentration of bookstores. College towns are a particularly fertile hunting ground, providing as they do a cadre of serious readers and a market for cheap books.

It seems extraordinary to me today, to envision a return to that model. The Internet has evolved into an indispensable tool for the serious collector. Attempting to shop the old way puts one at a serious disadvantage.

I still greatly enjoy a browse through a used bookstore and do so whenever the opportunity presents itself, particularly when I am in England where the availability of the books I seek is much greater. The one remaining advantage of the open shop is that it is impractical for any dealer to list all of his stock. Hence the Internet contains just a fraction of the total books for sale in the world and old-fashioned elbow grease will still be rewarded.

The biggest change in my book store browsing is that I am very reluctant to buy a book without first checking its availability and pricing on the Web. The habit is ingrained now. Whenever I see a book I may want to buy, I look for comparable copies on the Internet to avoid overpaying. I remember a couple of years ago speaking with an elderly book dealer who had fought the use of the Internet for as long as he could, but had finally succumbed. He immediately started finding books he had sought in vain for many years, seven and eight copies of them sitting right there on his screen. He dissolved into tears.

The real boost to my Everyman's collecting took place during my first trip to England in 1994. I owned perhaps 400 volumes at the time so opportunities for new finds were plentiful. I spent several days in London and several days in York haunting multiple bookstores. York in particular was a happy hunting ground because I could walk to at least a dozen shops. One feature I particularly appreciated was that most British booksellers have separate shelves just for Everyman's Library, making my search much more efficient. I can still recall one store in York where I bought many books and was shown a unique bookshelf. The Dent logo and Everyman's motto were carved in the bookcase oak and it stood on a desktop. Because of its two-sided design it held 300 Everyman's in a very compact space. I tried to buy it but the bookseller steadfastly refused.

I have since learned that many bookcases with various Dent and Everyman tie-ins were sold both to the public and to booksellers. My personal favorite is an enormous steel bookcase that could hold several thousand Everyman's. It was intended as a portable display vehicle for booksellers. It folded open and rolled along on heavy-duty casters. I have never seen one of these on eBay but I live in hope.

On the London part of that first trip, I visited the offices of then publisher, Weidenfeld and Nicholson. I was told that their archivist, Simon Cobley, was an old Dent employee with all manner of knowledge and was still on the payroll with Weidenfeld and Nicholson, just not in the office that day. I managed to reach him by phone in February of 1995 and he was gracious enough to chat with a novice collector. His first piece of advice was for me to lay my hands on The Reader's Guide to Everyman's Library. That task was not so easy in the days before the Web. It took me, as I recall, almost two years of hunting before I found my first copy of that invaluable reference, in a Manhattan bookstore. I now own over 20 copies of that work in its various editions and bindings. My own book was written as a companion work to the fourth edition of the Guide.

Bibliographies are an indispensable tool for any collector. While neither my Guide nor Dent's are bibliographies in the strictest sense of the term, they were written to present comprehensive information about the books to owners and prospective owners. My standard advice to someone who is considering collecting in a given area is to find whatever bibliographies exist in the area, and study them closely. I wrote my Guide primarily to supply for collectors information that was missing from the Reader's Guides.

Another by-product of that visit was a conversation with a London bookseller telling me about a customer who had compiled a complete collection of Everyman's Library in the 1980's. This was the first time I had ever heard the words "complete collection" and they immediately sparked my hopes. This collector's name was Robert Myers, a retired Vanderbilt English Professor. I learned that the professor lived summers in London and winters in the Georgetown area of Washington, D. C. He had spent six years traveling around England to compile his collection. The story ran that the professor, after completing the collection, sold it to Larry McMurtry. What some of you may not know is that Larry McMurtry, in addition to his prolific writing career, is also a prominent used book dealer, with a large store in Georgetown. I wrote to Professor Meyers and asked him some questions about his collecting activities. We exchanged several letters and at least two very expensive trans-Atlantic phone calls. He loved to talk at length on many subjects but, with the collection gone, I suppose, he was not terribly interested in providing useful details about his methods. I recall his telling me that his solution to the cares of the world was to brew a pot of tea and settle into his easy chair with a Jane Austen novel.

I miss the old bookshop-haunting days. The discovery, the ability to examine the wares, and perhaps most of all, I miss the conversations with the booksellers. Booksellers have a wealth of information, mostly stored only in their heads. They tend to be a friendly breed and are almost invariably generous in sharing their knowledge.

It is delicious to find a sought after volume wedged carelessly among other many quaint and curious volumes of forgotten lore. The cherry on top, of course, is if the book is a bargain.

The one factor I haven't yet discussed is probably the most important. That factor is condition. Who wants to own a grubby looking book? No book is a bargain if it is damaged, soiled, marred or defaced. The closer it looks to a newly published book, the better. There are five important attributes that determine value in a collectible book: significance, scarcity, condition, condition, and condition.

High Spots

Usually people like to know what my favorite book or most valuable book or most remarkable book in the collection might be. Collectors refer to such books as "high spots." Many of the high spots in my collection are contained in this exhibit. Certainly the most expensive book is the Alice in Wonderland. It was owned and signed by Alice Hargreaves, who as most of you know was the original Alice.

The book that usually attracts the most attention is the Nicholas Nickleby bound in pink suede. Legend has it that Liz, knowing of Richard's lifelong interest in reading and in Everyman's Library particularly, presented him with a complete set for his 40th birthday. The Richard Burton/Liz Taylor connection always stirs our interest. When I first acquired this book I assumed that Liz had ordered all of the volumes rebound in this rather garish style. I have since acquired another volume from the set, also bound in suede, but this time a dark blue. Thus it appears that the color scheme for the rebinding mimicked the color of the cloth bindings used by Dent at the time.

Another book in the exhibit is Edith Sitwell's copy of The Reign of Queen Elizabeth. Dame Sitwell wrote several books about Queen Elizabeth the First, and clearly made use of this book for research as it is heavily annotated. When studying the background of this book I learned that she fancied herself as bearing a resemblance to the Queen and in many ways took on her persona.

Every time I acquire a book that is in some way unique, I find I learn something new and am frequently led down such fascinating side-alleys. To take the examples we have already discussed, you can see I looked into the story of Alice Hargreave's tour of America with the legendary dealer Rosenbach. I read biographies of Burton and Taylor, something I certainly would never have done otherwise. I read one of the Sitwell Elizabeth books, and I learned much more about Sitwell herself.

What all of these high spots have in common is that they are association copies. An association copy is one that has been owned by an important person. The Burton/Taylor book follows that minimal definition. A stronger association copy is one that was either presented by the author to the important person or was somehow part of the book itself. Here the Alice copy is an appealing example.

In addition to association, the Sitwell Queen Elizabeth is an example of how annotations can increase a volume's interest and value. Sitwell was not merely recording her musings on the book but actually using the book as a tool to write a new book on Elizabeth.

J. M. Dent's Personality and Accomplishments

I have been asked to say a few words about the founding of Everyman's Library, and the men responsible for it. As with many great happenings a certain amount of happy coincidence was required. In the case of Everyman's Library I would stipulate four men and two events. Had either of the events and at least two of the men not come together, Everyman's Library probably would never have succeeded, at least in the way it ultimately did.

The four men were: Joseph Malaby Dent, the publisher; Ernest Rhys, the General Editor; John Macrae of Dutton in America; and Hugh Dent, son of the publisher.

Dent was a man who accomplished much, but from all available evidence, a very hard man to work for. In addition to some anecdotes passed to us second hand, we have the first hand evidence right here in this building.

For many years I was of the opinion that Ernest Rhys was a selfless scholar who was taken advantage of by Dent. This opinion was based in large part upon my readings in the Dent Archives here at UNC. Rhys committed all of his urgent requests to writing, usually multiple-page missives written in his distinctive, precise hand. Of course, Rhys was a professional writer and probably felt more comfortable stating his case this way rather than face the volatile "Old Chief" in real life. The body of correspondence is considerable and ranges over many years. The Rhys requests were so desperate and effective that I found myself reaching into my wallet to help. Through more careful reading of Rhys's own memoirs, however, I have revised this assessment. Certainly, for the work he did Rhys was way underpaid. Just as certainly his privations were real. Still more certainly, Dent was unaccountably stingy toward his editor. He must have known what a precious resource his editor was, crucial to his enterprise. He made numerous vague promises, yet consistently failed to keep them.

All of this being said, I have concluded that the interaction of their foibles is what made Everyman's Library succeed. Rhys had no head for money. Throughout his career as a writer both before and after he became involved with Dent, he put too low a value on his work. He was naturally generous and would give away his last shilling to someone with a sad story. He enjoyed fine restaurants and theatre and would indulge himself in these luxuries when times were good. He was capable of very hard work but generally only when he was in financial difficulty. Fortunately for the reading public, Rhys was nearly always in financial difficulty. Dent had the drive and the vision to take financial risks, to drive his employees mercilessly and to keep Ernest Rhys poor enough to do all the necessary work.

The other two key figures were Dent's son, Hugh, who had better business skills and much better people skills than his father, and John Macrae of Dutton's in the United States. Macrae worked with Dent on the selections for the list, particularly with an eye for what would sell in the United States. He also agreed to buy 10% of every printing, sight unseen—a considerable underpinning for the fledgling enterprise.

The two events were the coming off copyright of the major Victorian novelists and Dent's suddenly finding himself with enough capital to consider a large venture. Dent could not afford to pay royalties and still sell his volumes at one shilling. He had recently experienced enough success to accumulate some excess capital. Even so, the success of the series greatly exceeded his expectations and quickly gobbled up all that capital. What saved him was the relationship he had with several paper producers, paper being the most expensive part of his production. These paper dealers extended him enough credit to permit printing and sales to occur before they expected payment.

These men and events all converged to produce the deluge that was Everyman's Library in 1906—155 volumes the first year.

The Architecture and Archeology of Everyman's Library

One of the areas I have studied is how each title was selected for Everyman's Library. We know from several accounts that both Dent and Rhys made up extensive lists of what should be included. We also know that they had lengthy meetings where they debated the choices, sometimes with great passion.

I have never seen any of these hand-written lists, although a few clues are apt still to be buried in this very building, awaiting some scholar's discovery. And, of course, we have no tape of the heated debates between Dent and Rhys. One account that has survived is from Rhys's memoirs. He describes what he calls "a battle royal" over Fielding's classic, Tom Jones. "I am ashamed," Dent said, "to think of its effect on my boys' morals." Rhys rejoined, "Then their morals must be very cranky." As we know Tom Jones was issued in Everyman's Library in 1909 so Rhys won this round, presumably on the grounds of literary significance.

What I wouldn't give to see the agenda for 1909 as described by Rhys in Everyman Remembers! "The book is a dummy-copy of a volume in the Library, morocco bound and gilt labeled Le Morte D'Arthur. This particular page is headed 'February Fifty,' and the provisional list runs to some nine pages or more." Perhaps the Old Chief's squeamishness persisted for a few years after his death in 1926. In 1930, Boccaccio's Decameron joined the Everyman's Library. While no tales were deleted or censored one of the racier selections was actually printed in the original Italian, available only for those who could translate. It was not until 1953 that the tale appeared in Everyman's Library translated into English. For those of you who would like to learn more about Boccaccio, I believe we have a few translated copies of this tale at the back of the room.

We know from Dent's memoirs that he had clear favorites such as Boswell's Life of Johnson and more obscure works such as The Old Yellow Book and the novels of Mrs. Gaskell. Dent also tells us in his memoirs that he and Rhys had "councils of war...when we would begin early in the forenoon, lunch in the midst of a litter of books and papers, and not close till we had mapped out a forward list of some fifty possible volumes."

Rhys worked for the Walter Scott Publishing Company for many years, starting in 1886 as the editor of the Camelot Series. This series had much in common with Everyman's Library although on a much smaller scale. The volumes were reprints of the "classics" that sold for a shilling a volume. More than half of his Camelot list eventually appeared in Everyman's Library. Interestingly, several of them appeared in the 1930's, well after the Old Chief's death. Perhaps these were favorites of Rhys where he lost the first battle but then won the war—certainly an argument for outliving your opponents if I ever heard one.

At the same time Rhys was editing the reprint series for Walter Scott (the late 1880's and all through the 1890's), Dent was making a reputation for himself as the publisher of reprints and series, many of which were affordable by the masses. One of my current pursuits is to identify the predecessors to Everyman's Library volumes: that is to say, the books in Everyman's Library that were printed by Dent or Dutton in an earlier version.


I hope you can see from this rather rambling discussion what keeps the passionate book collector engaged and interested. Not just the books in the collection themselves, but the many paths and side-alleys they suggest. One area of knowledge leads us to several more and the branches keep fanning out. But equally as wonderful as the books are the people: people who are vital and intelligent, people who are humorous and generous. I speak, of course, of the booksellers, the fellow collectors, the librarians, and so many in the academic community. These people have enriched my life immeasurably. If you have enjoyed the visual delights displayed here and gained an appreciation for what book collecting can bring to a life, you have had a good evening.

Copyright © 2008, Terry Seymour
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